Conundrum: I was approached by a mother at church yesterday who asked if I would be interested in being her 9-year-old daughter’s mentor. “I want her to have other strong Christian women in her life besides me. I want her to hear other viewpoints beyond mine.” While I absolutely admire this and wish my mother had done something similar, my initial reaction was to say no because I am secretly Agnostic and I don’t think this mother wants an atheist contaminating her daughter.
Then I had two other thoughts. 1) This is good practice for when we adopt older children. Hang out, talk, and eat. Not a big deal. 2) I already introduce some of my personal values to the children in my life like my niece and nephew. Even though I know my brother and sister-in-law probably (stupidly) believe in young earth creationism, if my nephew asks me when his favorite dinosaur lived I give him a few million year answer. When my other nephew says he is afraid of the dark because of demons, I walk him outside, sit him in my lap, and explain to him what darkness and stars and light are.
I don’t want to mislead this mother though. Although I am still living as a closeted agnostic, I would like to do so with as much integrity as I can.
I went on a work trip this weekend and was seated next to two ladies on the plane who both worked for a Christian college ministry. “Are you a Christian?” the lady in the middle seat asked. This was it. Two strangers who I will never see again. I can tell them I’m an atheist...or at least not a Christian.
And I didn’t.
“Yeah,” I replied. “I’m a Christian.”
Why didn’t I tell the truth? Because I didn’t want to be confrontational. I didn’t want to explain myself to strangers. I didn’t want them to preach at me. Because it was easier to just say yes and move on with the conversation, avoiding any awkwardness.
In other words, I am obviously not ready to come out yet.
My parents were crazy drug-fueled alcoholics in the early days of my youth. Mom was 19 and unmarried when she learned she was pregnant with me. For the wedding two weeks later, my mom had to dye her blue mohawk brown again and part it down the middle so that it looked halfway decent in the wedding photos. She used to tell me, “You were such a good baby. You slept through all the clubs.” Eventually, my parents moved away from poor rural mountain country to the armpit of America, where they were still poor but my dad at least had job opportunities. It was there that my parents discovered God and pulled a complete 180.
My parents became every stereotype of Christian you can think of. No television in the house, no secular music, attending church at least three days a week, always proselytizing, praying for people in the middle of the grocery store, creationist, conservative, and Biblical literalists. They had found forgiveness and salvation despite their pasts and they wanted everyone to know about this amazing God they had discovered. Of course, they were also young and dumb so they did things like tell their family that they were going to hell. Some of those burned bridges will never be repaired. My parents believed it all though, with every fiber of their being. My mother, to this day, is thoroughly convinced of a six-day young Earth creation story and anything contrary is an affront to God.
All of this is a simplified background into understanding why a person would raise their children to believe in something that can seem almost like brainwashing. And to be fair, there are some aspects of my youth that were brainwashing, but it wasn’t because people were being manipulative or had cruel intentions, it was because they believed what they believed so completely and were sure that what they were teaching children was the right way. The only way. They were not only “training their child up in the way they should go”, but they were also saving their eternal soul. That’s some pretty powerful motivation right there.
Although I can’t say that everything I learned growing up was terrible or that I had a bad upbringing, here are some of the more negative takeaways:
Despite all this craziness, within the midst of it, I was also being taught things like compassion, service, helping those less fortunate, living in peace with the people around me, being kind. Not that one can’t learn those things in other places, but it wasn’t all bad. It’s what I have to remind myself too when I think about the scientific neglect I got in my education or the lies that were told about LGBTQ peoples. It’s how I stay at peace with my mother even when she says bullshit like, “Discrimination against black people is wrong because it is about skin color and they can’t change that, but it’s not wrong against gay people because they choose to be gay.” I think she is dead wrong, but having been raised by this person who believes this crazy crap, I can at least understand her viewpoint enough to just walk away. What’s the point in arguing?
Last night, while hanging out with some friends, my husband made the innocent side comment of, “Well we are both Christians...”
As a new Agnostic unbeliever who is not yet ready to come out of the closet, I didn’t realize how much this would bother me. My head snapped around. I wanted to open my mouth and loudly proclaim that No, actually, we weren’t both Christians. Obviously, I needed to let it go, but my reaction surprised me. Of course, my husband would say things like that. As far as he knows, we both are Christians, albeit a bit more on an agnostic level than most.
Never mind that 3 years ago it was I, even in the midst of my doubts, who insisted we do a Bible study together. It was I who complained about him never going to church with me or being involved. I am the one who pushed for giving a tithe to our church. And it was I who told him through sobs that I felt like we didn’t have a God-filled marriage. This man must be so confused. Which is why I think it is important to ease him into this mess over a period of years. It is also why I will have to bite down my intellectual pride whenever he references the fact that we are both Christians.
One of my greatest fears as a newly de-converted agnostic is that if and when I begin to let people know of my newfound unbelief they will say something akin to, “Well you were never a Christian to begin with” or “There is no such thing as an ex-Christian” My husband kindly tells me all the time that I worry too much about what people think, but this goes deeper than that. Christianity was the core of my identity for almost three decades. It colored everything I did and said for most of that time and led me to do things that I am not proud of. By someone stating that because I am “backslidden” or no longer claiming to be a Christian, I never was one...is akin to telling me that I didn’t exist.
I was a Christian. I believed everything I was taught and sought more knowledge at every opportunity. The Bible, creationism, apologetics, revival. On a Sunday night you could find me on my face at the alter, weeping as I sought comfort from a deity that I was assured, existed and loved me. My faith led me on missions trips around the world where I readily proselytized, assured in my understanding of the universe and my place in it. I spoke out against abortion and gay rights. The modesty culture was drilled so deep into my head that even now, I question myself when I wear a dress that is shorter than knee length or dips a bit in front. On my wedding night, I was a virgin. As a kid, I was actively involved in ministry, moving easily into an assistant for children’s church, and even leading my own Bible studies for teens. I went to youth conferences, retreats, domestic missions trips, served in soup kitchens, volunteered at the battered women’s shelter, delivered food to the needy. All of this because I devoutly believed that this is what God had called me to do as a Christian. It was something that all Christians were to do. (I still feel like most of this is important work, but no longer use religious reasoning as my motivation) I did Bible studies like ‘Experiencing God’, a program where I was expected to read large chunks of the Bible over a few weeks and answer workbook questions in order to become closer to God. I also felt like something must be wrong with me when I didn’t feel closer to God, but that is another story. My friends were and still are, mostly Christian. I shied away from people that seemed like a bad influence or liked to do “wordly” things like drink, party, smoke (anything), watch horror movies, or listen to rap or slasher music. When my friends went through a rebellious stage in their late teens and early twenties, I held my head high knowing that I was doing what was right in the eyes of God.
If you had told twenty year-old me that I would be agnostic thirteen years later, she would not have believed it. At all. You would be the equivalent of a demon trying to trick me. I would have prayed against you and your demons and would never have anything to do with you again. What a crazy notion. Everyone knows that non-believers are secretly devil worshippers who spend most of their time analyzing religions in order to try and trip up believers. It never occurred to me that some of those non-believers knew so much about the Bible because they used to be believers too.
As I begin to explore more of these atheist/agnostic understandings, I have run across a number of “testimonials” where people explain their path to unbelief. Almost all agree that there wasn’t one particular thing that made them unbelievers, but there were tons of little things that eventually piled up until they could no longer ignore their conscience. This process often takes years, especially if you were as deeply involved and indoctrinated as I was. This made me think back to what some of those moment were for me.
Perhaps it was the time I went on a mission trip to New Zealand. We were supposed to work with teens because NZ has one of the highest suicide rates per capita in the world, but my team ended up being dropped off at malls and commanded to prosthelytize to strangers. I absolutely refused to do it, much to the frustration of our leaders. But that wasn’t “the thing”. Two nights before the end of the trip we were having a prayer meeting and some of the kids got the wonderful notion to pray for the healing of another young man who said that he was color blind. I immediately balked at the idea. First, I wasn’t sure I even believed him when he said he was color blind and second, I was actually angry at the idea of God healing a guy with color blindness while my ex-boyfriend (who I still cared about) was dying of cancer. I refused to join in the prayer group. Two hours later there was shouting and crying as the boy and all the other teens began saying that he was healed. I didn’t believe it. Not for a second. I thought something was broken with my faith though because why would he lie? I was the doubting Thomas.
Maybe it was the time that I went to a revival and this guy said that those who wanted to get closer to God should come up front. Wanting that experience, I went up. One by one this guy laid his hands on people and they would fall to the ground, ‘slain in the spirit’ as it is called in charismatic circles. But when he got to me, I felt nothing. Not a damn thing. And the look of anger on his face when I didn’t fall over freaked me out. Yet I refused to just fall down because of this dude’s look. No, I felt nothing and therefore I was not going to bow to peer pressure. It made me wonder though, did all these other people actually fall over or were they faking it? Was there something wrong with my faith because I didn’t?
There was the time that one of my friends explained their (Calvinist) belief that only the Elect got to go to heaven. That God chose them, like picking members of a club, and so those who went to hell and eternal torment were purposefully chosen by God to go to hell. How could a person believe that and why would they keep serving and worshiping a God that did? If I believed that, I told myself, I wouldn’t be able to be a Christian because I would never serve such a capricious god. Good thing, I assured myself, that I did not believe that.
When I went back to school at twenty-three, I took a contemporary ethics class. At the time, I believed that God told me not to tell anyone in the class that I was a Christian and to try to argue my points without using “because the Bible told me so” as my answer for anything. In truth, looking back, it was probably my inner voice reminding me that I went to a very liberal college and I wouldn’t be taken seriously if I said things like the above. I managed to make it through the entire class, arguing a variety of ethical and moral issues without using the Bible once. This was my realization that I didn’t need the Bible to be a moral person. Quite a surprise for a girl who was raised to believe that the Bible was the reason we even had morality.
As a teenager I was obsessed with Egyptian history. However, when I looked at when the early dynasty began plus the additional 2000 A.D. years, there just wasn’t enough time for young earth creationist theory to work. 3150 + 2000 = 5150. If the earth is only 6-7,000 years old that only leaves 850-1850 years for humanity to spread across the Earth. A quick search on population growth showed me that it was impossible for humanity to expand and grow at that rate. Even at the low end of the spectrum, the world population in 3000 BC was supposed to be around 14,000,000. There is no way that the population went from 2 people to 14 million in 850 years. When I questioned this I was told that it was more like 10,000 years. Okay, but is 4,150 years enough time for 14 million people in a society where half of your kids died of childhood diseases? Very unlikely. And so I had to accept that people were wrong.
There were lots of small things too. Documentaries where Biblical claims were called into question. Most of the time I disregarded them, but they were still there in the back of my mind, waiting to be answered. Conversations I had with atheists. Never seeing anyone being healed but always hearing about it. My mother always saying that God was talking to her, but somehow, miraculously, God usually wanted her to do the things that she wanted to do already. Coincidences that really were just coincidences, not God-ordained appointments. Letting go of the notion that there was one perfect man out there for me because I realized that love is a choice and that there are, in all probability, quite a few men that I would get along with very well and could make it work with. Once I let go of the notion of young earth creationism and embraced evolution (as the way God made the earth, of course) it led me to an understanding that not only explained away ridiculous notions like rainbows from God, but also helped me understand the way in which our world could form without a God.
I’m at the stage where I am thinking about the implications of not believing in a God. How does cursing work now? Is it okay to curse now that I don’t believe it is a sin or is it still wrong but based not on religion but for the greater good of mankind? Does it matter? What about lying? Stealing? Cheating? Besides certain things being against the law, why will I continue to treat them as unethical? Does a humanist approach to philosophy and ethics fit into my worldview?
I am not at the point where I am willing to tell anyone about this. Unless they tell me straight up that they too are atheist or agnostic and I think I can trust them, I am not willing to go there yet. The disappointment my dad will have will be immense. My mother will want to pray over me and argue...because she already does that now and that’s just because we don’t agree on Christian stuff. My husband, although very moderate and almost agnostic, clings hard to his Christian right-wing upbringing and still says things like, “When I was online dating, I would never have gone out with a girl who said she was agnostic or atheist.” Considering we have only been married 2 1/2 years and dated for 1, this wasn’t that long ago. I think that he too is on the same journey as me, but a little bit behind. I suspect that in another 5 years though, we may be in the same place. Can I wait that long? I don’t know.
This is a personal, but secret, blog archiving my deconversion from a Christian to a non-believer.